Editorial: It Might Be Time to Turn the Open Lights on Again

Over the last week, we’ve seen some cracks in the veneer of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department director Clay Goddard. He’s been the model of calm throughout most of the COVID-19 outbreak that required a “stay at home” order for the city and county, but recently some anger has shown through because of the actions of some residents.

In the most recent case, a worker went to work while showing signs of illness and as a result 65 coworkers are now under quarantine, with 13 showing signs of coronavirus infection. A week prior, it was new infections from people who decided to take a leisure vacation to a destination that had a high number of COVID-19 cases.

I could intellectually understand Goddard’s frustration. Going to take a vacation where there’s a high amount of COVID-19 cases? That’s either incredibly naive or incredibly arrogant…maybe a mix of both.

If we’re honest, we’ve all gone to work when we’re sick with the possible exception of Clay and maybe Greene County Commissioner (and former Health Department head) Harold Bengsch. However, it’s pretty hard right now when the whole world is focused on a virus for which humans have no natural immunity at this point, has a higher infectious rate and death rate than the flu, and is currently causing a worldwide pandemic, to say “well, I’ll just go in and hope no one else gets it.”

Today, however, I really understood why our health department head is starting to act like the father who caught you behind the wheel of his 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California you were told a dozen times not to touch.

I went to a certain big box grocery retailer Sunday, one where a potential public exposure took place earlier this year. There was supposed to be a limit on the number of people inside the store, social distancing measures were supposed to be in effect, at least according to signs on the door.

You couldn’t tell once you were inside the store.

The store was packed with people to the point it was more active than most of the other times I’ve been inside the same location. If they weren’t limiting the number of people inside the store, then I really wonder why they even announced restrictions. The store was so crowded at one point they had registers open all the way to register 6. I didn’t even see that on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving inside the same store.

Very few people were social distancing and less seemed to even care about it. I watched as people just walked right up to strangers to take things off shelves as if it was any other day. The store had arrows on the floor showing they wanted customers to only travel one way but they were being universally ignored by customers and employees.

The most egregious thing I witnessed was a gentleman who I would guess from his appearance to be in his 50s or 60s. He was walking through the store without a mask, coughing and sneezing, without covering his nose and mouth. I watched him walk right up to an elderly lady and sneeze as he passed her. I watched him walk down an entire aisle coughing on three other people that were within six feet. He showed absolutely no concern for anyone other than himself despite visibly showing signs of some kind of illness.

When I asked one of the staff if they were doing anything to actually enforce social distancing, the employee said “well, we tell people they should do it.” Many employees weren’t wearing masks, and most of them weren’t even attempting to socially distance. They certainly weren’t making any of the customers follow social distancing requirements.

If Clay Goddard walked into that store today, I fear he would have exploded from anger. No, not explode as a metaphor for anger, I think he would have literally exploded after seeing well over 75 percent of the people in the store ignoring guidelines to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus.

However, as I thought about the trip while working on a story for OI (along with bookmarking a “grocery delivery” website), I realized that the complete disregard for social distancing and protection of others from the novel coronavirus could end up proving the point of some governmental critics.

There are protests coming up this week from people who are demanding the government lift stay at home orders and reopen businesses that have been deemed to be “not essential” to our daily lives. Among their arguments are claims that reopening the other businesses are not going to have that much of a negative impact on viral spread.

After what I saw at the grocery store on Sunday, if people are ignoring social distancing at open businesses on this grand a scale and we aren’t seeing a giant spike in cases within the city and county, perhaps it is time to relax restrictions on the businesses who have been forced to close.

I understand the argument that it lowers overall traffic and people leaving their homes, but a store selling sporting goods or a charity thrift shop where people are spaced out similar to customers at a grocery store can’t be that much more of a threat to the community at this point when I see hundreds of people acting like it’s April 2019 rather than April 2020.

Springfield and Greene County officials are looking at how to handle their “stay at home” orders in light of the Governor’s recent extension of the state order. While we’re all in favor of protecting the community, we’re also now looking at reality; it’s harder to build compelling case at the moment based on what we saw today to continue to keep non-essential businesses with larger size facilities closed to the public.

You might be able to make the case to keep closed businesses where people are in close contact for extended periods of time, such as a barber shop or massage therapy studio. Businesses that cannot create enough space between customers and employees that it increases the likelihood of transmission. It’s completely proven that close contact is a significant transmission route, so two people in a small room for a massage treatment might still be too high a risk to reopen right away.

Still, looking at the overall picture, if you can have hundreds going through a big box style store and it’s not “Ground Zero” for a major outbreak, perhaps it’s time to let the open lights again shine for retailers.

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